Condiments may seem simple, but, as chef Marcus Samuelsson writes in "New American Table," "they reflect who we are more than any other food."
Not only do condiments offer flavor, they contribute color, texture and aroma to any dish. And they can speak of culture and history. Take ketchup, that all-American dunk. It was created in Asia, with nary a tomato in sight, at least for a century or two. Here are some of the world's favorite condiments, the ones you'll find on the dining tables of each continent, and how you can use them in your kitchen.
Made by mixing powdered mustard or mustard seeds with a liquid, often vinegar, water or wine, and adding herbs, spices or other flavorings as desired. Assertive yet adaptable, French Dijon mustard may be stirred into sauces and vinaigrettes, used as a coating for grilled chicken and salmon or served as-is with cold cuts, sausages.
Whether green and peppery or golden and buttery or somewhere in between, olive oil comes in various quality grades. Extra-virgin olive oil, the first pressing from the olives, is considered the best (and is priced accordingly). Drizzle on cooked fish, chicken, mashed potatoes; use in vinaigrettes, sauces.
Called "Jamaican ketchup," this brand-name sauce is made with cane vinegar, tomatoes, onions, sugar, mangoes, raisins, tamarinds, peppers and spices. It is aged one year in oak barrels for a taste described by the makers as "sweet but mellow." Used to give snap to cream cheese, Pickapeppa also can be used to season meats, vegetables, fish, poultry
As ubiquitous in Southeast Asian cooking as salt is in the West, fish sauce is stirred into curries and stir-fries, whisked into sauces and dressings or used as a dipping sauce for spring rolls and satay. Made from fermented, salted fish, the sauce is intensely briny and smells pungent. Names vary by country: nam pla in Thailand, nuoc nam in Vietnam, patis in the Philippines, shottsuru in Japan.
Hot red pepper sauce
Made with chilies, salt and vinegar, different Latin hot sauces give heat to all sorts of dishes, from chili stews to tamales. Plus gumbo, stewed greens and chicken wings.
From North Africa, a spicy blend of oil, chilies, garlic, cumin, coriander, caraway and other spices. Serve with couscous, soups, stews.
Piri-piri (or peri-peri) is the word for the small, incendiary bird's eye chilies of Africa. That gives you a clue to the fire in the sauce, popular in southern Africa and Portugal. Use it as a marinade or sauce with chicken, seafood, soups.
Major Grey's Chutney
Salute Major Grey, whoever he was, for though the sun long ago set on the British Empire, this Raj-era condiment remains popular around the world. Made from mangos, onions, raisins, vinegar and brown sugar, it adds a spicy lushness to any plate. Pair with grilled lamb chops, curry dishes, rice casseroles.
A thickish hot chili sauce from Thailand with just enough sugar to curb the fire and deepen the flavor. Use it to zip up everything from stir fries to sushi.
Sources: "The Deluxe Food Lover's Companion" by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst; "Food" by Waverley Root; "Asian Ingredients" by Bruce Cost; "Olive Oil" by Charles Quest-Ritson; "Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking" by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo; Webster's New World Dictionary of Culinary Arts; pickapeppa.com; http://www.nandos.com.